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If you’re visiting Falkirk, taking a tour of the Callendar House should definitely be on your itinerary. This year, the house was closed for nearly six months due to world events. As it happens, I was their very first visitor when they reopened on September 10th. In case you’re not able to get to Scotland in the near future, or if you’d just like a taste of what’s in the house, here’s a little virtual tour. This is definitely not meant to supplant your own visit someday.

Where and What is the Callendar House

The Callendar House is the centerpiece of a 500-acre estate in the southeast part of the town of Falkirk. The manor house started off as a single, small stone tower in the 1300s. Over the past 700 years, it’s changed hands several times and also expanded considerably in size. Mary, Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and Queen Victoria are among the famous people who have stayed at the Callendar House.

The entrance to the Callendar House is less than a mile away from the city center. You could take the F16 bus there, but it’s just as easy to walk. It’s a bit awkward to see the eleven 15-story apartment buildings that were built at the beginning of the estate as part of a community development project in the last century, but once you’re through those, the beautiful estate grounds begin.

Callendar House

A Virtual Tour of the Callendar House

The Callendar House interiors have been restored to their Georgian-style glory and now most of the rooms contain a museum for the history of the house and other temporary and permanent exhibitions. There’s quite a bit to see and take in between all the exhibits. If you wanted to rush through and get the general idea of the place, you could probably see everything in about 45 minutes. If you’re more inquisitive and want to read all the panels, it might take you about 2-3 hours to get through all the exhibitions.

Rather than try to explain all the photos and panels, I’ll just let them speak for themselves. Hopefully, they’ll inspire you to visit in person. I apologize in advance that some of them aren’t crisp.

The Story of Callendar House

This is the first of the three permanent exhibitions as part of the self-guided tour of the Callendar House. I was amazed to see the progress of the mansion from a simple tower house to what it is today. There’s also a massive amount of history connected to the house, including reformations, revolutions, royalty in residence, etc.

The Antonine Wall – Rome’s Northern Frontier

The Antonine Wall was built 20 years after the more famous Hadrian’s Wall and stretched from the River Clyde near Glasgow to the Firth of Forth (similar to the route of the Forth and Clyde Canal). The wall was abandoned only 8 years after its construction and fell into ruin. The portions of the wall that remain are protected by UNESCO World Heritage status, including the section that runs across the Callendar Estate, although it’s now hard to recognize as a wall. There’s another portion of the wall you can visit at Rough Castle near the Falkirk Wheel.

Falkirk: Crucible of Revolution

If you read my article on the Kelpies, you’ll know that Falkirk played an important role in iron and steelworks for Europe. But I didn’t know how important that role was until I visited the Callendar House. Falkirk iron was actually exported across the entire planet; you can see manhole covers bearing the Falkirk Iron Co. stamp in small villages in Africa and Asia!

The Callendar House Georgian Kitchen

This Georgian kitchen speaks for itself. At the end of the eastern wing of the house, it dates back to the 1700s and still has much of its original equipment, including the iron pans, a large bread oven, and a massive fireplace. The contraption on the fireplace was fascinating. That iron door above the fireplace wasn’t a smaller stove. Rather, it was a fan in the flue which turned a series of gears and chains which rotated two spits in front of the fire, and two hooks for hanging poultry.

There will be a staff member dressed in character to show you around the kitchen and describe what the different artifacts were used for, how old things were, etc. I was particularly interested in the story about how children used to live and sleep beneath the large kitchen table. Their job was to ensure the fire never went out, using up to twelve buckets of coal a day, and sometimes sitting on the small iron bench next to the fire to turn the spit (before they installed the mechanical contraption).

The kitchen was also a filming location for the TV Series Outlander. In season 2, episode 11, it was used as the kitchen at the Duke of Sandringham’s home, Belhurst Manor. In case you haven’t watched the series yet, I won’t spoil what happened in that episode, but I will say it’s the scene with the famous line “I kept my word. I lay my vengeance at your feet”. The Callendar House is just one of many filming locations in Falkirk used for Outlander and other movies.

The Park Gallery Exhibitions

This is one of the temporary exhibition rooms. At the time of my visit, the exhibition was called “Uprooted” and covered a refugee movement. To be honest, by the time I made it into this room, I was running behind schedule and didn’t really have a lot of time to read everything. I don’t know how long each of the exhibits stays up for, but I believe there are about seven different exhibits that rotate each year.

Park Gallery Exhibition Room

Additional Exhibitions

Unfortunately, due to the world events of 2020, the Callendar House is no longer allowed to hand out floor plans, so I didn’t really know what exhibitions I was walking into or which room of the house I was in.  Here are some more photos from the last exhibits titled The Waters of Life, covering the construction of the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal, as well as the role that Falkirk had with shipbuilding and shipbreaking.

The Falkirk Archives

At the time of my visit, the Falkirk Archives were not open to the public, but I had a chance to peek into the room. I love old libraries like that, with floor to ceiling bookshelves.

A Virtual Tour of the Callendar House in Falkirk, Scotland 1

Booking Your Own Tour of the Callendar House

Perhaps the best part of the Callendar House is that it’s free to visit! You just have to prebook your tour in compliance with the new regulations due to the world events of 2020. At this time, there are only 6 people allowed in the house every half an hour, and a one-way system is in place for all the exhibitions. The Callendar House is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the last entry slot at 4 p.m.

As I said earlier, you could rush through in under an hour, but if I were you, I’d plan to be in the house for at least a couple hours. If you have more time, you can also spend a few hours walking around the grounds. Some of the sights to see are the Forbes Mausoleum, the remnants of the Antonine Wall, and Callendar Lake.

While you’re walking around the grounds, if you notice that the back of the house looks like it could have been the front, it actually once was. The castle-like facade at the current front of the house where the giftshop is located is a recent addition. The old entrance has since been bricked up, but those bay windows that looked out to the woodland were indeed part of the house’s original reception.

Callendar House Rear View

Another great thing to do at the Callendar House is Afternoon Tea, but at this time, the Tearoom is closed due to government restrictions. Hopefully, it will reopen in the near future. I’ll update this article when it does.

Lastly, make sure to pick up the Callendar House guidebook from the gift shop. It covers anything you might have missed about the house and grounds and gives detailed descriptions about the permanent exhibits and different rooms of the house. I’ve tried not to include too many details in this post simply because I want you to visit the house yourself someday and I don’t want to spoil it for you.

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Virtual Tour of Callendar House Pin

Further Reading

Headed to Scotland and looking for more activities outside of Edinburgh? Here are some other suggestions.

Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.

If there’s one tour in Edinburgh I’d recommend above all others, it would be the Real Mary King’s Close Tour. This tour has a little of everything – history, architecture, culture, and even a ghost story. Best of all, since the whole tour is inside and seemly underground (not really, but more on that below), it’s the perfect attraction for a rainy day in Edinburgh.

What is a Close?

To understand what a close is, I have to give a short history lesson. Over 300 million years ago, Edinburgh had some volcanic activity and the three hills of Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill and Castle Rock were formed. Later on, a glacier moved into the region, split on Castle Rock, and carved two valleys beside it. The original city of Edinburgh was built atop the basalt of Castle Rock. The town was fortified within a wall and only measured a couple square miles.

The layout of the town consisted of the castle at the top of the hill and a single main street running down the ridge of rock eastward from the castle. Small alleyways branched off this single road toward the valleys on either side. The homes of Edinburgh were built along these alleyways, stacked on top of each other to create the world’s first skyscrapers – some reached heights of up to 11 stories or more!

The Scottish names for the alleyways were close, court, entry or wynd. Wynds were public thoroughfares, although sometimes barely three feet wide (think windy – twisting and turning). Closes were private roads and therefore had a locked door or gate at the entrance. The alleyways were named after a notable person on the street, or after a profession that took place on the street. Some examples are Fisherman’s Close, Ceddes’ Entry, Bell’s Wynd and Writer’s Court.

My Tours of Mary King’s Close

The first time I took the Real Mary King’s Close tour, the day was sunny and snowing. In other words, beautiful and freezing. Maybe not the best day for a hike…not that the weather would have stopped me. If you are looking for something to do in Edinburgh that’s out of the cold or bad weather and doesn’t take too long, the Real Mary King’s Close is a perfect choice! I’ve since done the tour several times with different friends who’ve come to see Edinburgh.

I had the pleasure of getting Paul as my tour guide on my first tour. The others are just as good, but he definitely added his own flair and humor into the tour. And as my group was relatively small, it made for a great experience. After all, it’s only an hour-long tour.

I’m not going to spoil the tour too much, since I still want to you do the tour yourself, but here’s a summary of what you can expect.

The tour starts off in an exhibition room where you can see a 3D model of the original close and surrounding buildings. There’s also a video playing on the wall showing original maps of Edinburgh and the history of how the city was built. The guide will introduce himself or herself here and give you the rules, safety measures and expectations of the tour.

From there, a guide takes everyone down to Mary King’s Close to see some of the original dwelling spaces. The first several rooms are recreations of the lifestyle in the 1600s when Mary King resided in her chambers there. There is a gruesome tale of what happened with one of the residents of the close, not uncommon for that era, and another room with a really interesting audio-visual presentation covering some of the contemporary events in the 17th century.

The next few rooms are a bit more sinister, as they cover the story of the plague which decimated Edinburgh (and much of the world) in 1645. Due to lost records, it’s unknown exactly how many people perished during the plague, but considering how closely packed everyone was in those days (literally unable to leave the confines of a couple square miles), the mortality rate was extremely high. The rooms have recreations of the plague doctors and living conditions for those afflicted.

Another series of rooms show how some of the basements in Edinburgh were converted into bomb shelters during World War II. There’s another video in one of the rooms, but it doesn’t always play due to faulty (or perhaps cursed) wiring.

Lastly, there are the ghosts. While the tour primarily focuses on the history of Edinburgh, they just can’t avoid the topic of the supernatural in the most haunted city in the world. Various apparitions have been known to haunt the close over the centuries, possibly due to it’s proximity to the old Nor Loch (North Lake) where they used to carry out witch trials by dunking women into the excrement-filled lake. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, there’s one particular room which has built up a rather famous reputation in recent years.

The final part of the tour is a photo opportunity standing on Mary King’s Close. This is the only photo you’ll be able to get on the tour.

Is The Real Mary King’s Close Really Underground?

There are many tours in Edinburgh that claim to be underground. This is incorrect. As mentioned above, Edinburgh was built on an ancient volcanic hill, and digging into the basalt wasn’t really an option or necessary for the original settlers. However, The Real Mary King’s Close certainly appears to be underground, considering there’s a large building above it.

In 1760, the Edinburgh City Chambers was built across the street from St Giles Cathedral. The building was originally the Royal Exchange and was big enough to span several alleyways. Instead of finding a new location, the city chopped the tops off the medieval “skyscrapers” and built the Royal Exchange on their foundations, leaving the original streets and lower levels intact. These areas were off-limits to the public until the Real Mary King’s Close opened as an attraction, giving tours centered around the close named after the wealthy merchant Mary King.

Tips for The Real Mary King’s Close Tour

The first thing to know about the Real Mary King’s Close is that it’s built under a governmental building – the City Chambers – and the supporting structures are apparently confidential, so photography is not permitted. As such, don’t bother bringing your camera. You’ll be able to get the photo provided by the tour itself.

Bring a pair of good shoes that won’t slip. This really applies to all of Edinburgh. The Real Mary King’s Close is quite steep, and while there are handrails, it’s a good idea to have a good pair of shoes anyway.

Finally, bring a little toy or stuffed animal with you. You’ll see why on the tour; I’m certainly not going to spoil the surprise!

Booking a Tour

Located directly opposite of St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile, Mary King’s Close is easy to find. With tours every 15 minutes from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., you can almost always find the time that you want. Just book in advance during the summer as getting a tour as a walk-in is very difficult! Full-price admission is £17.95, with discounts for seniors, students, children and families.

The tour is quite user-friendly. Guides speak English, Spanish and Italian, and there are audio-guides in French, German, Spanish and Italian, Portuguese, Mandarin and Gaelic. You can also show up for the tour right off the bus or plane with your luggage. Large lockers are available for your gear and extra layers you might be wearing since the underground attraction can be considerably warmer than the outside temperature. Unfortunately, there is no access for wheelchairs.

Mary King's Close Tour

Updates for 2020

Due to the world events of 2020, safety measures have been put in place in the Real Mary Kings’ Close. Tour sizes have been reduced, allowing for social distancing. Hand sanitizer is provided throughout the tour, and you are requested to wear a mask unless you’re exempted. You should book in advance, partially to ensure you get a space on one of the tours, and partially as you’ll have to use a card which is better than cash.

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The Real Mary King's Close Tour Pin

Further Reading

Looking for other attractions in my favorite city in the world? Here are some more articles you might like.

Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.

Disclaimer: This was a complimentary tour organized in coordination with Visit Scotland and the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions, both of which have my utmost gratitude!
Image Credits: The Real Mary King’s Close Tours

When planning your trip to Scotland, make sure to include some attractions in Edinburgh for a rainy day. If there’s one certainty, it’s that it will almost always rain in Edinburgh. While most of my favorite spots in the city are outdoors, there are plenty of indoor attractions you can enjoy as well.

National Museum of Scotland

This is easily my favorite attraction in Edinburgh for a rainy day. To be honest, if you go to the museum, you don’t need any other attractions as you can spend days there. The museum has two parts. One side of the museum has the usual exhibits – biology, science, technology, fashion, etc, but with fantastic, modern, interactive displays. The other side of the museum is entirely dedicated to Scotland. Each floor covers a different period of Scottish history, right up to modern times. I’ve spent hundreds of hours there over dozens of trips, and I still don’t think I’ve seen everything. The museum is open almost every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and, best of all, as with most museums in the UK, it’s free!

Grand Gallery at the National Museum of Scotland. Copyright National Museums Scotland

National Galleries

The Scottish National Galleries span four buildings around the New Town. There’s quite a bit to see, and they’re all free. To keep you dry, there’s a shuttle van to take you between the main National Gallery and the National Gallery of Modern Art.

Scottish National Gallery

The Scottish National Gallery sits on what’s called The Mound – literally a huge mound of dirt excavated from where they built the train station – which bridges the Old Town to the New Town across a small valley. The beautiful, neoclassical building houses hundreds of works of art from the past seven centuries – mostly paintings but some sculptures too. The gallery is connected underground to the Royal Scottish Academy which holds many more works of art; it’s hard for me to personally see how the two collections are separate.

Scottish National Gallery

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

The Portrait Gallery is located on the east side of the Old Town, just across the street from the Central Bus Station. This gallery contains about 3,000 paintings and sculptures, 25,000 prints and drawings, and 38,000 photographs – including two portraits of Mary Queen of Scots, both of which were painted posthumously. I’ll admit – this is the gallery I’ve spent the least amount of time in, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t bad.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

The modern art gallery spans two buildings near Dean Village (one of my favorite parts of Edinburgh). Both buildings host several rotating exhibits, so rarely will two visits be the same. Perhaps modern art isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve found some really interesting pieces each time I visit.

National Museum of Modern Art

Chihuahua Cafe

This is one of my favorite activities in Edinburgh and the perfect attraction for a rainy day. Honestly, what’s better than playing with eight adorable chihuahuas? The sessions are 50 minutes long for £10 ($13). You can add tea and cake onto your package for another £5 ($6.50). There are also birthday packages when one of the puppies has a birthday. The cafe is located in the New Town, and you have to book in advance if you want to visit.

Chihuahua Cafe Therapy

Read my full review on Edinburgh’s Chihuahua Cafe

Maison de Moggy

If you prefer cats over dogs, then Maison de Moggy is the place for you. Located next to the Grassmarket, this cafe has a dozen cats you can pet and play with…as long as they’re not sleeping – which they do a lot. One of the cats is a super-fluffy Persian, and another is the complete opposite – a hairless sphinx! Tickets are £10 ($13) for an hour, and the tea and cakes menu is a-la-carte.

Maison de Moggy Cat Cafe

Read my full review of Maison de Moggy

Camera Obscura

This is the best place to visit in Edinburgh with kids, although I enjoy it just as much as any child (says the child in me). Camera Obscura is a house of illusions, and it’s just awesome. This several-story building next to the Edinburgh Castle has things like a mirror maze, dozens of optical illusions, and a rotating light tunnel which is guaranteed to give you vertigo. On the roof is the namesake – a camera obscura or shadow camera that actually works to see around Edinburgh during the day. Tickets are £16.50 ($21.50), making it one of the most expensive attractions in Edinburgh, but it’s a load of fun and you can spend hours there.

Camera Obscura Interior Mirror

Read my full review of Camera Obscura or click here to buy tickets

The Real Mary King’s Close

If I were to recommend only one attraction in Edinburgh, Mary King’s Close would be it. This is one of the best history tours, cultural tours, and even a bit of a ghost tour. In a nutshell, several of the old streets of Edinburgh were “covered” when they built the City Chambers above them, and now you can explore the original street and dwellings from the time of the plague. The tour lasts an hour and costs £17.95 (save £1 if you book in advance).

Mary King's Close Tour

Read my full review of The Real Mary King’s Close or click here to buy tickets

Escape Rooms

Escape rooms aren’t exclusive to Edinburgh, as are most of the other attractions on this list. But they’re always great fun, and perfect for a rainy day. Edinburgh has several escape rooms, two of which I’ve done and can highly recommend.

Escape Edinburgh

Escape Edinburgh has eight rooms spread over three locations in Edinburgh. The rooms have different levels of difficulty, including two very hard ones which both have below 40% success rate. I played Houdini’s Workshop at the New Town location just behind the Georgian House. That room was one of the easiest, which was good as the two friends I brought had never done an escape room before. The rooms are £12.50 to £24 ($16.30-$31.30) per person, depending on the day of the week and how many people play (more people = cheaper per person).

Read my full review of Escape Edinburgh

Locked in Edinburgh

Once voted the Best Escape Room in the UK, Locked in Edinburgh is built into an old gin distillery in Summerhall – a hip community center with several other attractions for a rainy day. I went with a team of three other players (all newbies) and escaped from the Old Gin Distillery room with a time of 46:21. If you’re traveling with a large group, Locked in Edinburgh has one room which is big enough for 10 players. Rooms here are a flat rate of £20 ($26) per person.

Locked in Edinubrgh Escape Room

Read my full review of Locked in Edinburgh

Holyrood Palace

I’m not recommending Edinburgh Castle for a rainy day as much of the castle is outdoors. On the contrary, most of Holyrood Palace is indoors so it makes the list. This 16-century palace has been the Scottish residence of Queen Elizabeth II, as well as several monarchs before her, including Mary Queen of Scots. The audio guide of the palace lasts about an hour and costs £16.50 ($21.50). If you haven’t been to a palace before, I’d recommend this one. Personally, after seeing dozens around the world, they start to look the same.

Holyrood Palace Mary Queen of Scots Bedchamber

Read my full review of Holyrood Palace or click here to buy tickets

The Royal Yacht Britannia

There are a handful of really great ship museums around the world that I’ve been to – the Vasa in Sweden, the Cutty Sark, and the SS Great Britain. In Edinburgh, it’s the Royal Yacht Britannia – in service for the Queen from 1954 to 1997, and now one of the more popular tourist attractions in Edinburgh. You can take a tour with an audio guide of nearly every part of the ship. It lasts about an hour and a half and costs £17 ($22).

Britannia Banquet Table

Click here to buy tickets

Surgeon’s Hall Museum

Most British museums are free, but this is one of the exceptions. Nevertheless, I’d highly recommend the Surgeon’s Hall Museum, which just might be the best medical museum in the world. Before I visited, I had no idea that Edinburgh was the center of international medical research in the 18th century. Their massive room with visual displays of every physical malady should not be visited with a queasy stomach. Tickets are £8 ($10.50).

Mercat Ghost Tour

Did you know Edinburgh has been named the most haunted city in the world?! It’s true, and your visit to Edinburgh would not be complete without a ghost tour. While there are several in the city to take, by far the best one (in my opinion) is with Mercat Tours. They have four different tours to choose from, all of which are fantastic. They all center around the South Bridge Vaults – the 120 rooms built into the 19 arches of the bridge built in 1788 to span the valley from the Old Town to the Old College. The vaults are very definitely haunted, so prepare to get scared! The tours range from £15 to £19 ($19.50-$25), depending on which one you choose.

Mercat Ghost Tours in Edinburgh

Read my full review of the Mercat Ghost Tours or click here to buy your tickets

Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour

If you want to see a lot of the city but still stay dry, a hop-on, hop-off bus tour is the perfect way to do so. Edinburgh actually has four different tours to choose from, all managed by the local bus company. Two of the tours stick to the city center, one goes to the harbor and botanical gardens, and the fourth goes to the Firth of Forth bridges and Inchcolm Island where you’ll find one of the best-preserved abbeys in Scotland. The three city tours are £16 ($21) each and the tour to the island is £25 ($32.75), or you can get all three city tours plus entrance to Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace and the Royal Yacht Britannia for £59 ($77) – by far the best value with a savings of £38 ($50)!

Click here to buy your tickets

Red Bus Bistro Tour

While the hop-on, hop-off tour is good, a far better bus tour around the city center is the Red Bus Bistro Tour. Not only do you get to see the Old Town and hear a history lesson on Edinburgh, but you’ll also get fed some really good food which is made right on the bus. There are two tours to choose from – afternoon tea at noon and 3 p.m., and a Harry Potter-themed tour at noon and 6 p.m. All tours are only available Friday through Sunday, cost £37 ($49) and last an hour and a half. Along with Mary King’s Close, this is one of my favorite attractions in Edinburgh for a rainy day, or any day for that matter.

Red Bus Bistro Afternoon Tea TourRed Bus Bistro Afternoon Tea Tour

Read my full reviews on the Red Bus Bistro Afternoon Tea Tour and Harry Potter-Themed Tours

Georgian House

The Georgian House is a beautiful 18th-century townhouse located in Edinburgh’s New Town next to the residence of the Scottish Prime Minister. I’ll admit, this is one of the very few attractions in town that I haven’t visited myself, despite being invited to see it. A museum spans all five floors where you can see what the decorations looked like in the 18th and 19th centuries. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March through November and costs £8 ($10.50).

Dynamic Earth

Another attraction I haven’t been to is Dynamic Earth. Since I haven’t been to this museum personally, I’ll use their own description: “A permanent visitor attraction which presents the story of the planet – how it was created; how it continues to evolve, the prospects for mankind and the effect of hazards both natural and manmade.” Honestly, I don’t know why I’ve never visited myself! Tickets are £15.95 ($21) and you can save 10% when booking online.

Click here to buy your tickets

Gilmerton Cove

The final attraction in Edinburgh I haven’t personally been to is the Gilmerton Cove. This is considered to be one of the spookiest places in the city. It’s also a complete mystery. Basically, it’s a series of caves on the outskirts of Edinburgh, but whether they were built 200 years ago or 2,000, and what their purpose was, no one knows. They’ve done rock soundings and found the caves are far more extensive than what they’ve discovered so far. I can’t wait to take the tour myself. It costs £7.50 ($10) and lasts about an hour.

Ceilidhs

Lastly, a great activity for a rainy day is a ceilidh (pronounced “kailey”). This is a traditional folk dance in Scotland, and they’re incredibly fun. Several places in Edinburgh put them on regularly, such as Stramash Bar and Summerhall. You can even find them outside when it’s raining, such as this one up in St. Andrews for St. Andrews Day:

Third-Wave Coffee

If you’re looking for something simple and just want to relax, you couldn’t have chosen a better city for the coffee culture. Edinburgh embraces third-wave coffee (from single-origin fairtrade micro-breweries) more than any other city I’ve been to. There are dozens of cafes around Edinburgh serving some of the best coffee I’ve ever had. Stay tuned for a full post listing out which are my favorites.

Black Medicine Coffee Mocha

Tips for Visiting Edinburgh in the Rain

  • Rule number one for visiting Edinburgh in the rain: don’t bring an umbrella. The wind here rips all but the hardiest umbrellas to shreds.
  • Wear a good pair of non-slippery shoes. The streets here can get really slick, even when they’re flat. I slide all the time even with good-quality shoes.
  • Bring a rain jacket, even if it’s sunny. Edinburgh has a micro-climate, and a sunny day can change to rain within minutes.
  • Expect to get wet, but not a lot. You’ll still need to get from one attraction to another in the rain, but the rain in Edinburgh tends to be light.
  • Don’t let the rain stop you from visiting Edinburgh. If you try to plan for a sunny trip, you’ll never arrive. It’s almost always guaranteed to rain here, but that’s just part of the charm of the city (in my opinion). Embrace it, and see why Edinburgh is my favorite city in the world.

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Attractions in Edinburgh for a Rainy Day Pin

Further Reading

Looking for other activities in Edinburgh that aren’t necessarily weather-dependent? Here are some other options, as well as some recommendations on where to eat in Edinburgh.

Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.

To complete my Edinburgh Hogmanay celebration, I went to see the giant lanterns at the Edinburgh zoo. While the lanterns might have been made for kids, I was fascinated by them. Sadly the dinosaur giant lanterns are only around until the end of January, but there will be more lanterns at the Edinburgh zoo next year.

About the Giant Lanterns

The Edinburgh zoo has had a giant lantern festival for the past three years. In 2017, the Giant Lanterns of China tradition was born with 34 different lanterns showing different animals found in the park, including the lions and pandas. A year later, the attraction expanded to over 450 lanterns with a fantasy theme. Among the lanterns of the Folktales and Fantasy Nights were faeries, a hippocampus (half horse and half fish), unicorns, kelpies (like the Loch Ness monster) and a 50-foot Qing Niao (a majestic bird from Chinese mythology).

The Giant Lantern theme of 2019 was Lost Worlds. Over 600 lanterns were displayed along a trail that covered more than half the zoo. Each year, all the lanterns are produced by hand in China and shipped to Edinburgh to show Scotland’s connection to China, along with the two pandas in the Edinburgh Zoo. The lanterns usually last for 10 weeks over the holiday season and are available in the evening after the zoo itself has closed down.

Walking Through the Dinosaur Trail

The trail of the giant lanterns starts at the “Dawn of Time” – a giant clock display with the hands turning backward, symbolizing turning back time 3.5 billion years to when life first began to appear on this planet.

Turn Back Time Lantern

The “Explosion of Life” display has a beautiful tunnel of lights, balls and the first creatures to swim in our oceans.

Lantern Tunnel

Moving on to the “Surface World” lanterns, the first display consisted of three Pareisaurs lanterns, followed by a pair of Cotylorhynchus lanterns. These looked surprisingly like modern-day mammals, even though they predated most of the dinosaurs that we know.

Lobster Lantern

First Anmial Lanterns

First Dinosaur Lanterns

The next display was really cute. It featured 12 zodiac dinosaur egg lanterns, giving a dinosaur with a different color and traits for each month on the zodiac. While it might have been designed for kids, I enjoyed it too. I had an olive-green dinosaur bringing peace and prosperity.

Zodiac Dinosaur Eggs

Selfie with Zodiac Dinosaur Egg

A primary feature of this year’s display was the volcano in the “Mass Extinction” section, located behind the dinosaur eggs. The volcano towered 32 feet in the air, with several smaller volcanos leading up to it.

Giant Volcano Lantern

Along the trail were information panels describing all the different periods and dinosaurs. The lanterns might have been designed more for children, but the information given wasn’t exactly kid-friendly. The next section we walked through featured synapsid dinosaurs, and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around what they are (perhaps an over-simplification is mammal-like reptiles).

Various Dinosaur Lanterns #2

I continued to walk around the zoo, following the trail which had the side paths roped off. Apart from the flamingoes and penguins, none of the animals were visible. The sun bear enclosure had the windows to their den boarded up, and not one monkey or meerkat was about. I couldn’t complain. Visiting the zoo is a full-day experience for daylight hours, and the lanterns take a couple hours to appreciate on their own.

Various Dinosaur Lanterns #1

The next displays I passed through were titled “New Beginnings,” “Taking Flight,” “Feathered Forest,” “Chinese Skies,” “African Showdown,” and “Above the Clouds.” As much as I loved dinosaurs as a child, I didn’t recognize any of the creatures, but that didn’t make the lanterns any less impressive. If anything, they were even more fascinating due to their unknown nature.

Stegosaurus Lantern

Within this section was the largest lantern in the display – a 65-foot-long snake with its jaws opened wide along the path. It made for some great photos if you wanted to stick your head between the teeth. I didn’t really see any signs saying not to touch the lanterns, although some of them were set at a distance from the path behind the ropes. Plenty of people were leaning into the closer lanterns for photo opportunities.

Giant Snake Lantern

I really liked the “Taking Flight” lanterns. They featured reptilian birds and the lanterns seemed to have more details and colors than any others in the exhibit. It wasn’t just the dinosaurs that were lanterns. Dozens of tree and plant lanterns were also created for the exhibit.

Flying Bird Lantern

Bird on Branch Lantern

Pteradactal Lanterns

In an unused exclosure (I think it used to house the seals), a large aquatic display was set up featuring dozens of sea creatures, plants and a couple of larger amphibious reptiles. This display (as well as a few others) was interactive and the kids could press large buttons for different lanterns to light up.

Aquatic Lantern Display

Finally, I came to the “Mega Herbivores,” featuring the T-Rex and Triceratops. I guess I was surprised that they didn’t make the T-Rex bigger, but that’s probably just the original Jurassic Park fan coming out in me.

Herbivore Lanterns

Fighting Dinosaur Lanterns

Triceratops Lantern

The final displays were “Asteroid Strike,” “Rise of Mammals,” “New Kingdoms,” “Marsupial Land” and “Age of Ice.” I loved all these sections, but my favorite lanterns were in the “Age of Ice,” including the wooly mammoths, bears and rhinos.

Meteor Strike Lanterns

Kangaroo Lanterns

Tapir Lantern

Giant Elk Lantern

Bears in the Ice Age Lanterns

Bear in Cave Lantern

Rhino Lantern

Before I arrived at the visitor center, one last big lantern display showed a clock bringing me back to present time. As a whole, the full exhibition was put together perfectly, covering all the different eras of dinosaurs. Sure, the intricate details probably went over the heads of most of the kids who visited. They were just fascinated by the lanterns while we adults were able to learn a thing or two.

Return to Now Lantern

Visiting the Giant Lanterns at the Edinburgh Zoo

The giant lanterns are available to visit between the middle of November and the end of January. You have to book a time slot between 4:45 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. You can stay as long as you want until the attraction closes at 8:45 p.m.; the time slots are just to ensure everyone doesn’t all arrive at the same time. I’d recommend booking a later slot to avoid the bigger crowds, but not later than 7 as it does take a couple hours to appreciate the full exhibit. Also, arrive a few minutes before your slot as the parking tends to back up a bit. If you’re traveling to Edinburgh with kids during the holiday season, this is a great activity to add to your itinerary.

Tickets are £21.79 ($28.65) with a 10% discount if purchasing more than 24 hours in advance. Kids under 17 are £11.14 ($14.65), and kids under 3 are free. There are several other ticket categories, such as students, elderly, RZSS members, etc. which can all be found on their website.

  • Location: 134 Corstorphine Rd, Edinburgh EH12 6TS
  • Hours: 4:45 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. on roughly 50 dates between mid-November and the end of January
  • Price: Adult – £21.79 ($28.65); Child – £11.14 ($14.65) Save 10% when booking online, 24 hours in advance!
  • Website: Edinburgh Zoo
  • What to bring: Walking shoes, a poncho if it’s raining, and your camera. Edinburgh zoo is located on Corstorphine Hill, so a bit of hiking is involved.

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Edinburgh Zoo's Giant Lanterns Pin

Further Reading

Don’t fancy going to the zoo? Here are some other activities to partake in around Edinburgh.

Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.

Can you imagine a model railway with 10 miles of track? That’s just what Miniatur Wunderland has in Hamburg, Germany…along with over a third of an acre of miniature model cities from around the world.

20 Years in the Making

Construction started on Miniatur Wunderland in December 2000 by the twin brothers Frederik and Gerrit Braun. By August 2001, they had completed the first three sections – central Germany, Austria and the imaginary German town of Knuffingen. These first three sections totaled over 3,000 square feet and took a massive 60,000 man-hours to complete. The following year, Hamburg opened as the largest city in Wunderland, comprising 1,000 buildings and 50,000 figures.

To date, 923,000 man-hours have been spent constructing the 9 completed regions of Wunderland. More than 300 people have been employed, and €35,000,000 ($38,750,000) has been spent on its construction. Within the 16,000 square feet are 4,340 buildings, 263,000 figures, 389,000 LED lights, 9,250 cars, and 130,000 trees. The heart of Miniatur Wunderland is the train system, which totals 9.8 miles of track, 1,040 trains, more than 10,000 railway cars, 1,380 signals, and 3,454 switches. Everything is managed by 50 high-tech computers.

Traveling Through 9 Regions

Due to the layout of the building, the regions you walk though don’t coincide with the sequence in which they were opened. In fact, the newest region is the first you will see after you walk through the workshop.

Italy

The first region I entered was Italy. Right from the beginning, I was astounded by the detail. This 2,000-square-foot region contains 30,000 figures, 10,000 trees, 450 buildings plus 22 churches, about 400 cars and nearly 50,000 microscopic LED lights. Traveling on the mile and a half of train tracks in this region are about 110 trains with 800 wagons, 110 signals and 404 switches. Altogether, this region took 180,000 man-hours to construct!

Five regions of Italy are represented, including Liguria (Genoa), South Tyrol (Bolzano), Tuscany (Florence and Pisa), the Amalfi Coast and, of course, Rome. The reconstruction of the buildings here is magnificent. In Rome, they’ve recreated the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, Piazza Venezia, St. Peter’s Basilica, Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and even the Termini Central Train Station. Even the water in the rivers looked realistic, although perhaps I remember them being a bit muddier in real life.

Rome at Miniatur Wunderland

The Amalfi Coast region included the ancient ruins of Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius rising behind it. Every night (yes, Miniatur Wunderland goes through day and night cycles, but more on that later), Vesuvius erupts and lava flows down toward the town. It a really fascinating display and I just couldn’t believe how realistic it looked.

Venice

Venice is a sub-section of Italy, opened separately as the attention to detail here didn’t make the opening date of the Italian region. By itself, Venice has 3,000 figures, 206 buildings, 26 bridges and 160 gondolas, not to mention over 3 miles of wiring! The highlight of the Venice region is a recreation of Piazzi San Marco including St. Marks Basilica, Doge’s Palace and the Bell Tower. The designers really went to town on crafting everything meticulously. The scale is around 1:1300, allowing them to shrink this part of the island down into 100 square feet.

Venice in Miniatur Wunderland

Other landmarks such as Rialto Bridge are also visible within the tableau. Each of the buildings is painted in the Venetian style, giving far more detail than the other regions. What really sets this region apart from the rest is the lack of cars and trains, just like the real Venice. While the model train system is a key feature of Miniatur Wunderland, gondolas replace them to ply the plastic waters of Venice.

Switzerland

The next region I entered was Switzerland. This region covers 2,700 square feet and spans two floors! It contains another 50,000 figures (many of which are in the DJ Bobo Concert), 700 buildings, 30,000 trees and 1,000 cars. The really impressive part of this region is the landscape. Four tons of plaster and fifteen tons of steel were used to sculpt the mountains and valleys. In fact, part of the exhibit includes walking through the Matterhorn where you can see underground caves, mines and even the subterranean train station Porta Alpina.

The Swiss Alps in Miniatur Wunderland

Within the region of Switzerland is the Lindt Chocolate Factory. Miniatur Wunderland is actually a fully interactive display, and there are hundreds of buttons you can press throughout the regions which will produce different scenes. With Lindt, you can push a button to see the factory go into production, complete with a miniature bar of chocolate dropping out of the dispenser! Lindt is some of the best chocolate in the world, and I saw one guy hovering near the model so he could get a few pieces to stash in his pockets.

I think the most interesting part of Switzerland is the DJ Bobo concert. More than 20,000 individual figures were put into a small field, and dozens of interesting scenes can be found throughout the crowd. Here, you can push a button and have the show play out. It’s even more impressive at night with all the lights coming on. Dozen of the people are somehow holding itty-bitty torches. Perhaps that’s why it takes 7 computers just to manage this one region.

Central Germany and Knuffingen

I’m not entirely sure where the next two sections separated. The first depicted the quintessential life of rural Germany. There were small villages, farms with their animals and tractors, and even an open-air theater where Romeo and Juliet perform. When it opened in 2001, the interactive buttons were revolutionary for models. This region spreads out over 1,300 square feet and contains 13,500 figures, 10,000 trees, 205 buildings, 420 cars, 26,000 LEDs, 130 trains with 1,000 wagons, 80 signals and 120 switches. I’d have to say the level of detail isn’t nearly as high as Venice was, but it’s still incredibly good.

Central Germany in Miniatur Wunderland

Knuffingen is a fictitious region of Germany created solely within Wunderland and is where the mischevious side of the designers stands out. The highlight of Knuffingen is the 400 active cars and trucks driving down the streets (I’m guessing by magnets beneath the roads). Among the vehicles are 31 fire trucks which are constantly rushing to put out one simulated fire after another. By this point, I was just overwhelmed by the level of detail. If you look closely, there are dozens of tiny scenes playing out among the figures, whether it’s police checks, Superman going to save a car crashing through a guardrail in Switzerland, or a nude couple sunbathing in Austria.

Austria

Austria was the next section, although it also blended together with Central Germany and Knuffingen (and opened the same time as them). This is the region of the Alps, and it’s just mind-boggling to see how they’ve chiseled detail into every rock of these mountains, not to mention the snow-dusted trees, the ski slopes and all the alpine huts. This region contains 6,500 figures (the fewest of any region), 150 buildings, 10,000 trees, 180 cars, 40 trains and about 14,000 LEDs.

Knuffingen Airport

If the Knuffingen region seemed slightly less impressive than Italy, its airport took things to a whole new level. Just as Miniatur Wunderland is the most impressive model with the longest toy train track in the world, Knuffingen Airport breaks all the records. There are 52 planes (and one Millennium Falcon) that make about 250 flights a day. They come out of a hole in the wall and either get parked at one of the many gates of the terminal or return to the skies through a hole in the far wall.

Millennium Falcon at Miniatur Wunderland

This airport took 150,000 man-hours to construct and, in addition to the planes, has 15,000 figures, 75 buildings, 4,000 trees, 40,000 LEDs, 90 driving cars, and a staggering 62 miles of wiring within the model. I spent far too long watching one plane after another come down the runway and get taxied into its designated spot in the airport. It was just impossible to keep track of everything that was going on within this 1,600 square feet. There was even a brawl between two figures taking place on one of the roofs. Again, it must have been magnets making them tumble about, but I was really struggling to comprehend how it was all put together.

Hamburg

As Miniatur Wunderland is located in Hamburg, it’s no wonder that they would dedicate an entire region to their own city. Within these 2,500 square feet, all the landmarks are represented. Here is the Köhlbrand Bridge, the Speicherstadt warehouse district, Volksparkstadion Stadium (with over 10,000 figures within), the entire harborfront with cranes loading the ships, Hamburg Central Station, Hagenbeck Zoo and, of course, Elbphilharmonie.

Volksparkstadion Stadium at Miniatur Wunderland

The “Elphi” is Hamburg’s new concert hall, one of the largest and acoustically advanced halls in the world. The replica in Miniatur Wunderland actually opened three years before the grand opening of the real thing, and their stories are surprisingly similar. The model cost 350,000 euros ($385,000) and consumed 13,000 hours to create. Now you can push a button and the building will open up so you can watch the concert inside. It’s a lot easier and cheaper than going to see a real concert there, although that’s still definitely on my bucket list.

Elphi at Miniatur WunderlandElphi at Miniatur Wunderland

The rest of Hamburg includes 50,000 figures, 12,000 trees, 1000 buildings, 1,300 cars, 190 trains, more than 1,800 rail cars, 1.6 miles of track, 260 signals, 550 switches and about 60,000 LEDs. Although I did a walking tour and a boat tour, this was still a great way to see the city and learn about all the different landmarks.

United States

Finally, I came to my region of origin, or rather selected parts thereof. Depicted are the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Mt. Rushmore, a Christmas Village (Germany is spilling over into the USA), Miami, the Keys and Cape Canaveral, Yosemite, and Area 51. The population of the country has dramatically decreased to only 30,000 figures along with 450 buildings, 10,000 trees, 800 cars, 140 trains and about 70,000 LEDs.

Wild West of the USA at Miniatur Wunderland

I’ll admit, I had spent so much time in the previous regions that I barely had time to wander through this section. This is also where I saw my first pink letter, which meant I spent most of my remaining time in Wunderland trying to find the other pink letters, which I’ll describe below.

Scandinavia

At this point, I have to say that two hours in Miniatur Wunderland isn’t nearly enough time. On some days, they’re open until midnight, but they closed at 6 p.m. on the day I went. By the time I made it through the other regions, I only a few minutes left to rush through Scandinavia, which is a real shame as this is the region that uses nearly 8,000 gallons of actual water. Also used are 40,000 figures, 30,000 trees, 500 buildings, 600 cars, 150 trains and about 50,000 LEDs. I’m going to have to go back someday to see more of it so I can fill in this section!

Scandinavia in Miniatur Wunderland

Attention to Detail

Even knowing that they’ve spent nearly a million man-hours building the models, it seems like it should have taken longer. Every inch of Miniatur Wunderland looks like it’s been painted by a one-hair brush. Blades of grass are drawn in, the cars have tiny writing, the buildings have impeccable detail, heck, you can even see the rosy nipple on the nude sunbathers.

Nude Sunbathers in Miniatur Wunderland

There are countless tiny scenes to be found among the regions. I loved the one with penguins waiting with their luggage and a puppy at one of the train platforms, and the guy leading a pet kangaroo down another train station. I found quite a few Santa Clauses in different locations, including stuck in gridlock on his way to the airport. I’m willing to bet you could spend a thousand hours scouring Wunderland and still not find half the easter eggs hidden throughout.

Spooky Scene at Miniatur Wunderland

Enjoying Miniatur Wunderland Day and Night

Perhaps the most impressive feature of Miniatur Wunderland is how it changes every 15 minutes through day and night cycles. The scenes are completely different when the 389,000 LED lights come on, and some are definitely better at night. The handheld torches at DJ Bobo’s concert are far more visible at night, the Alps look magical with all the alpine houses lit from within, and Mt. Vesuvius is definitely a highlight as its lava rolls down toward Pompeii every night.

Rome at Night at Miniatur Wunderland

Finding the Pink Letters

When I went, Miniatur Wunderland had their own “Where’s Waldo” game throughout the regions. Instead of Waldo, you had to find 15 pink letters beside unique scenes. When you found them all, you arranged them in a sequence which spelled out a word you then had to submit on a website. Once I found my first letter (15 minutes before closing time), I blitzed through all the regions again finding the rest. In fact, I ended up being the last one out, but at least I found all the letters and was able to submit the right answer.

I don’t know if this will still be around, as the competition ended a couple weeks after I visited. Perhaps they change the letters around to different scenes. It’s just another feature that makes Miniatur Wunderland so much fun!

Plans for the Future

Miniatur Wunderland is far from complete. They’ve got plans for the next decade, including the regions of a Fun Fair, Monaco and Provence, South America, Central America and the Caribbean, England, France, Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg), and Africa/pan-Asia/India (basically, the whole world). The future regions do vary from time to time as their creative passions change, but the quality and detail of their work only get better. This is a place I’d love to bring my kids in a couple decades to see how far they’ve progressed (after I’ve had kids, of course).

Visiting Miniatur Wunderland

The opening hours of Miniatur Wunderland vary wildly, but it’s always open at least from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Some days, it’s even open until midnight. It does get really busy (over 18 million people have visited since it opened) so advanced booking is essential, especially in the summer. I would honestly say you should spend the entire day there (just like you would at a full amusement park), and take a break in their cafeteria for lunch. If you’re in a rush, 3-4 hours would be the absolute bare minimum. But seriously, just go for the whole day!

[button color=”blue” size=”medium” link=”https://skye683a.myportfolio.com/miniatur-wunderland-hamburg-germany” icon=”” target=”true”]My full gallery of Miniatur Wunderland photos[/button]

Tickets are €15 ($16.50) for adults, but there are 12 other categories of tickets from children to handicapped. There’s no easy summary of their ticket prices, opening hours or wait times, so just head to their website to book your tickets.

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Miniatur Wunderland Pin

Further Reading

Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.

Disclaimer: I was given complimentary tickets to Miniatur Wunderland on behalf of Visit Hamburg and Miniatur Wunderland. As always, all views and opinions are my own.